So much remains to
be done in the city to which less than half of the pre-Katrina population of
445,000 has returned. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works around the clock
to repair the Lego levees. Charity and Memorial hospitals are still boarded up.
The National Guard continues to supplement an overburdened and underpaid police
force, especially in such notorious neighborhoods as Central City and
Carrollton. Thousands of insurance cases still need to be settled. Clearly, the
people of New Orleans know much about false promises, which makes their embrace
of former USC star Reggie Bush--and his of them--a year after Katrina something
much more compelling than the usual preseason optimism. "We just got Jesus
in cleats," was how one fan put it to The Washington Post when the Saints
made the 21-year-old running back the No. 2 pick in the April draft. He was
also the "Golden Child" or the "Savior" in the local papers. On
his first trip to New Orleans, in April, citizens from every social strata
lined up outside Emeril's restaurant to get a glimpse of the young man whom
they perceive to be a rare sign of something going right.
In late July he
dropped his brief holdout and signed a six-year, $62 million contract, making
good on a vow that he had made in May, when he said, "I want to be in camp
on time--I think it is important to start off on a good note, not only with the
team but the city."
The city was
already his. Cash-strapped New Orleans can't properly equip its high school
football teams, but the poorest kid could afford to Scotch-tape a newspaper
picture of number 25 to the refrigerator. "He's the man," a teenager in
a saint reggie T-shirt enthused in line at Hansen's Sno-Bliz stand the day
after Bush rushed for 59 yards on six carries against the Titans in his debut.
"Nobody can do it the way Reggie can!"
Some 15,000 of
those T-shirts sold out on the day they were printed. Season-ticket sales stand
at 55,000--the highest mark in franchise history. Mobs of fans have made the
pilgrimage to Jackson, Miss., site of the Saints' training camp, to watch
Reggie work out. "We're being embraced in cities like Jackson and
Shreveport and Baton Rouge," says Rita Benson-LeBlanc, granddaughter of
Saints owner Tom Benson. "Our organization is like a symphony. Everything
is building, building. Reggie has embraced our region, and our fans love him
also quickly found out that Bush doesn't just talk the talk. One of his first
moves was to write a personal check for $50,000 to a local Catholic school for
disabled students. Along with Adidas, he has donated $86,000 to seed and
maintain a city high school football field. And 25% of the royalties from
Bush's Saints jersey are going to hurricane relief efforts. Because of its
association with Bush, Pepsi has donated $1 million to rebuild homes in the
area, and Subway has pledged to make charitable contributions. What's next?
Maybe Saint Reggie statues in the Jackson Square Cathedral gift shop alongside
ones of Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases.
This is not the
first time New Orleans has pinned its future on an NFL star. The town remembers
Archie Manning and Ricky Williams and Mike Ditka and how they couldn't stop the
losing. Given the checkered history with supposed saviors, Saints fans might
want to keep their expectations in check, but Bush is making that difficult. In
the first quarter of his first game, on Aug. 12 against Tennessee, he
electrified the crowd when, sweeping to his left, he ran into a swarm of
Titans, turned back, shifted gears and gained 44 yards. Nine days later
Louisianans got their first down-home look at him, against Dallas in
Shreveport. While Bush's numbers weren't gaudy (four carries with a long gain
of nine yards, and two catches for 14 yards), he left enough Cowboys defenders
in his wake with his open-field moves to justify Saints Pro Bowl wide receiver
Joe Horn's assessment that Bush is "an amazing talent."
August 29 marks
the one-year anniversary of Katrina; Sept. 25, the Saints' home opener against
Atlanta at the Superdome, is the official rebirth of the city. "Something
in the air is magical," LeBlanc says. "Katrina is pulling us all
together. Every day it feels special to be helping the area recover from the
trauma. We're lifting spirits." If the President of the United States comes
to the home opener, as has been rumored, he won't be the most loudly cheered
Bush in the patched-up building.
None of this, by
the way, surprises the Reverend William Maestri, superintendent of schools for
the archdiocese of New Orleans. Maestri lately has been reminding students and
teachers about a certain follower of Saint Dominic in 12th-century France, a
man who lived a life of prayer and generosity and concern for the poor. The
man's name? Blessed Reginald of Orleans.
is professor of history at Tulane University and author of The Great Deluge:
Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf South.
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